A man who was born in Iran and spent some of his formative years in Egypt looks back on his life from the age of 37. Much of his focus rests on his relationship with his elder sister, whose adjustment difficulties as a child spill over into her adult life.
Protagonist and narrator Ayumu Akutsu begins his account at his birth in Tehran, Iran, where his father, Kentarō, and mother, Naoko, have been sent by the oil company his father works for. His sister Takako is four years old. Roughly 18 months later, the Islamic Revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power takes place, and the family returns to Japan. They live in Osaka near Naoko’s family home for several years, but then in the summer of the year Ayumu starts grade school, they go abroad again, this time to Cairo, where they remain for three years. It is a highly formative time for Ayumu, and he is much influenced by his friendship with a Coptic Christian boy his age named Jacob, as well as by his sister Takako.
Unlike Ayumu, who is good-looking and liked by all, Takako is a homely and difficult girl. Perhaps out of a desire for attention, she is forever misbehaving?refusing to listen, throwing things, wetting her pants, eating dirt, and so forth. The beautiful and narcissistic Naoko is at her wits’ end trying to cope. As a bystander to the constant clashes between his sister and mother, Ayumu learns to keep quiet, not assert himself, and to do as he is told.
Ayumu becomes fast friends with Jacob. They spend a great deal of time together and develop a close bond, even though they must communicate in broken Arabic and Japanese. When they are done playing for the day they always part by exchanging the Japanese word of farewell, saraba. It becomes their own special code word?a reminder of their friendship that can return a smile to their faces amid the adversities of Jacob’s poverty and minority religion status, and Ayumu’s growing distress over the discord at home.
After the Akutsu family returns to Japan in 1988, Kentarō and Naoko get divorced. Naoko receives custody of the two children and they live near her family home, now occupied by her mother and sister. Skinny as a rail due to anorexia, Takako becomes an easy target for bullying and stops going to middle school; she refuses to continue on to high school and takes up instead with a new religion she learns about in the neighborhood. Naoko remains unemployed, and has a string of boyfriends.
1995, the year of the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack, marks the halfway point of Ayumu the narrator’s life. After losing interest in the new religion and shutting herself up at home for an extended period, Takako becomes a virtual invalid; her father Kentarō takes over her care, and they move to Dubai. Ayumu goes off to Tokyo for college as if champing at the bit to get away from his family. Then Kentarō decides to quit his job and become a monk, and the family is completely scattered.
After traveling all over the world, Takako falls in love with a Jewish man and they get married; she has returned from the brink and is getting her life back in order. By contrast, Ayumu loses his hair and good looks, which deals a severe blow to his self-confidence; he had set his sights on becoming a writer but instead virtually stops working. In 2011, the Mubarak regime crumbles in Egypt and Japan is hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami. Now 34, Ayumu decides to return to Cairo, where he is reunited with Jacob. It becomes a turning point: he devotes the next three years to writing an autobiographical novel that looks back over his life to date. As her children and husband find their footings, Naoko also regains stability in her life.
On their search for something they can believe in, father, mother, sister and brother must each endure and overcome numerous personal hardships, but all ultimately find their way to a brighter outlook on the future. After the final page, one is left with the exhilarating sense that author Kanako Nishi has truly poured her all into a narrative that echoes her own life’s journey.